On October 10, 2012, I went for a bike ride. Nothing in that is unusual. Most days of each week I go for a bike ride. This particular ride wouldn’t really be worth noting at all were it not for the memorable feeling I had as I dropped down the south face of the Santa Monica Mountains. I felt the greatest sense of my and my bike’s limits, though that’s not what I was thinking about as I dove past some friends and held my braking fingers at bay.
The populace usually refer to the practitioners of any sport where agility—that curious combination of physical skill and crystalline judgment—is all that prevents raw velocity from ending in a sudden, careening explosion—think windmill in a tornado—adrenaline junkies. I can say from considerable experience that phrase is only half wrong, but the half that is wrong misses like getting on the Chicago train when your destination is New Orleans. I’ve had something of an addiction to dropping down mountains as if I was water in a river rushing out of the mountains. Nothing else in my life matches that sense of grace that washes over me, and that has to do with how the “adrenaline” part of adrenaline junkie is so wrong.
Adrenaline isn’t something you want to feel.
That’s the fight or flight response. It’s the taste of a 9-volt battery in your mouth, a sensation that every time encountered has been accompanied by fear. It is absolutely the physical presence of fear itself. Only a masochist would go in search of it.
What was washing over me as swung through turns tight enough to slow a good-sized sedan to idle was a soup of neurochemicals that kill pain, convince us we’re in love and turn the world brighter and more beautiful for as long as we concentrate. That sense of joy tempered by calm, a place for which I can conjure no image to remind us.
And then, in a turn in which I thought I would deliver the correct answer finally—for the first time ever—a place where my knowledge of the road, my control and the limits of the tires’ adhesion came together in what was to be a flourish at the end of a signature, well …
I rolled over some paint and my rear tire did a little mambo.
I have, on some occasions, permitted myself to play back the way things went wrong at that moment, how I steered into the turn and regained control of the bike to keep it upright but misjudged my ability to go off-road at that speed and thus flyswattered my face into loose dirt and gravel. On a very few occasions I’ve allowed myself to try to play out how things might have gone had I taken any action other than what I did. Of course, it’s all guesswork; cyclists fall and break shoulders when they figure it could have been a collarbone, they pick up a couple of gashes and no road rash in a slide, or as I did, tenderize and remove my chin when I thought I’d send a bowling ball through a styrofoam cooler. Still, in my imagination, all the other options, all the other ways I imagine that event could have played out end with me either spinning or sliding on the asphalt at 30 mph. My gut says I got off easy.
By easy, I mean that to everyone who isn’t me, all that was required to set me right was the skill (and thread) of one very artful plastic surgeon, a guy better known for making lips bigger not smaller, as he did in my case.
I’d trade one good Harrison Ford-like scar if he could have repaired the stuff on the inside as well.
Weeks later, my stepfather, Bryon, died. My mom had been married to him for 23 years, but my relationship to him stretched back more than 30 years, to when I was 14. Now, I should add here that my father is still alive and he and I have a great relationship. Losing my stepfather was not a matter of losing the only paternal figure in my life. And it’s not like my father was a felon and incapable of providing a healthy model for what an adult male might aspire to be. I’ve got a great dad, period. Losing Byron still represented a huge loss because of his unique qualities.
Byron was a passionate supporter of mine. He wanted to see me happy and successful. Fulfilled. Yet he never provided any input about courses of action except when morality or ethical considerations were at stake. Despite caring deeply for me, he was cautiously detached from the outcomes of my actions. He allowed me the freedom to do what I chose, and yet would talk to me at every turn, less guiding me than helping me to see what I might achieve on my own abilities.
I wasn’t supposed to reveal this, but he was so impressed by my standing up for Charles Pelkey and taking on what was a monumental expense for this blog—just because I thought it was the right thing to do—that he talked with my mom and offered me the money to bring John Wilcockson on board. You might say the first five months of John’s work here was an advance on my inheritance. Byron saw it as just giving me wood to fuel a fire I’d done a nice job of lighting. My job was to secure enough advertising in that period to afford John’s work going forward. And while we got through the summer and early fall well enough, advertiser drop-off in the winter (and getting stiffed by a few advertisers) put him back out of reach. I’m still paying him for last fall’s work.
I’m incredibly fortunate to still have both my parents. From sharing the latest photos to commiserating over the challenges of the American health care system, we enjoy being in touch, and I’m grateful that I can still turn to them with whatever financial hurdles I face—in only with the intent of asking for advice. But talking with Byron was different. His detachment meant that his guidance was couched as if through my own eyes, given with an understanding of what I wanted for myself. The loss of that voice in my life is something I haven’t adjusted to.
Seeing what his absence has done to my mother’s world has made me ache for all that we have the potential to offer each other. His was an example that showed how being mindful of our actions and moving gently, with kindness, can profoundly alter the quality of another person’s life. I don’t think I’m a bad guy, but I’m aware that if I could achieve what he did, my wife and children would have better lives than they already do.
In those weeks I spent in Memphis, just trying to be present with my mother as she grieved, I rode hundreds of miles, and none of it at a pace that would impress anyone. Byron was with me on those rides, his example ringing in my ears, his voice no closer than that last, saved, voicemail.
When we found out that the Deuce had an abnormality during what was to be a final, routine, visit to the OB/GYN, I knew I needed to call my parents to tell them. I did my best to reassure them that this would be a minor issue and we’d be sending baby photos and telling stories any day. How wrong I was. Because of the need I felt to set my parents at ease, the person I really wanted to talk to, the person to whom I felt I could have been 100 percent honest about my concerns was Byron. What would he have said to me?
It’s been a long time since I felt like I lived in the shadow cast by my parents, that I needed to distinguish myself as a person. It’s been even longer since I was naive enough to believe that their counsel was as outdated as a Corvair. I now understand that this phase of adulthood is one where we learn to live without the voices of our parents. It’s an absence distinct from the loss of them physically, it’s that ability to reach out to the people in whom you entrust those most important decisions, asking for the feedback that can only be given by someone who knows you as well as you do.
One morning, as I pedaled through the hills of Palos Verdes and wondering how to confront the issue of surgery for the Deuce, I caused myself to chuckle when I came up with the acronym WWBS—what would Byron say? I realized he’d tell me I was doing all right. He’d probably ask me if I was still riding. Even though he wasn’t a cyclist himself, he understood its more medicinal quality in my life. And he’d ask if Shana and I were talking. Then he’d ask me what my gut told me and what my fears were. Once I’d poured everything out to him, he’d invariably mirror back to me all that he’d heard, but in an especially concise reduction sauce. I can imagine he would have said something like, “I hear you saying you don’t like the surgery one damn bit, but that you trust the doctors and you don’t see any way around it. I’d be scared, too.”
I miss that voice.
I can’t shake the feeling that my family has experienced a zero-sum event, that in losing Byron and gaining Matthew, we have reluctantly struck a new equilibrium where the burden of wisdom has shifted from Tennessee to California. I try to convince myself that the physical manifestation of that sense is what I felt when I first climbed on a full-suspension 29er. It felt big, really big while the suspension punished sloppy actions and rewarded grace, but it was still a bike, so on that first big descent, all I needed to do was convince myself I knew what to do.
Over the last six months, there have been little glimmers of my old self on the bike, but far more episodes where one sketchy moment shows me just how gun-shy I still am. Not just of crashing, but of anything that induces stress. Rather than being a way to discharge, cycling has mostly only been a way to recharge, to help sustain me through today’s crisis, or maybe whatever comes next.
The reason I’ve stuck with cycling no matter whatever else has been going on in my life has been that the sport has been a way to ask questions, a way to answer them and even a way to answer bigger questions, ones where the only wheels are metaphoric.
Of this much I’m certain: I’ve got two healthy, growing sons and bikes in the garage. Like knowing what was around that turn, the rest, I accept, is up for grabs.
I went down yesterday. It was bad. After 13 years with no deck time, my number got called, and in a big way. I’ll be okay. My mouth took the worst of it; if I’m lucky, I’ll end up with a scar that gives me some rakish charm, which would be a real improvement in my case.
A few words about the crash itself: I was descending Tuna Canyon road in Malibu. Of it I once wrote that Tuna was where parachute ripcords go for training. Several kilometers of Tuna are steep, in the 14 to 18 percent range. It is where the one-off Redbull Road Rage event was held, where a buddy of mine with a full-face helmet and motocross pads hit 60 mph. It’s a place where a single mistake can require a payment plan. There’s a point on the descent, a final switchback, after which the road goes much flatter; the pitch is more like four percent. This is the section of road I was in, well past everything any reasonable person would describe as dangerous. I was apexing a small bend in the road and suddenly hit a patch of road that didn’t offer the same grip is everything else.
My rear tire slid. And big time. It was the biggest slide I’ve ever ridden out on a road bike. The problem is or was that once I steered into the skid and stood the bike up, I was pointed 45 degrees to the road. I quickly chose to avoid the enormous (we’re talking the size of an office chair) tree stump. Unfortunately, my plan to keep the bike rolling for as long as possible didn’t really pan out; I hit a bump and went over the bar, pounding my face into the ground. I spent the next 9 hours at the ER, but at least got the care of a really ace plastic surgeon.
I bring all this up for a few reasons.
- Yes, we’re aware that there was actual news in the cycling world yesterday. I haven’t had much time to read, so I’m going to let Charles tackle it, at least initially, in his next Explainer column.
- I’m not sure how much posting I’ll get done in the next week. I’m going to be okay, but I’m on a liquid diet and Percoset, which is a detailed way of saying I’m not at my best.
- The oh-so-overdue jerseys are due here today. I’d promised everyone who’d had the patience to keep waiting all this time for their arrival that I’d ship them the day they arrived. I’m thinking I might need an extra day or two. Bending over isn’t what I’d call comfortable.
Thanks for reading.
After months of riding on both the Roubaix and the Tarmac SL I was dismayed. I had yet to determine a preference relative to my own riding and that was killing me. Mind you, I wasn’t trying to determine the better bike, because I didn’t actually think one was superior to the other, but I believed that because the two bikes were different I must, as some point, arrive at a conclusion about which better suited my taste. Simply put, I should get down a technical descent on one faster than the other. Which would it be?
Malibu contains more than a dozen roads that run from the ridgeline of the Santa Monica Mountains down to Pacific Coast Highway. The roads can drop nearly 2500 vertical feet at grades of up to 18 percent. The descents generally range between 4.6 and 9.2 miles. Most of them feature more than a dozen turns per mile. At 40 mph, that’s a turn about every six seconds … and many of the turns can last for three or four seconds.
Of these descents, three offer grades steep enough to sustain speeds above 45 mph over road surfaces that don’t make the experience seem like fodder for an episode of Jackass.
Kanan Dume Road recalls the sweeping turns and consistent grades of the Rocky Mountains. It features far fewer turns than the other descents and a good deal more traffic.
Tuna Canyon Road is where the ill-fated Red Bull Road Rage was held. It features more than 70 turns in 4.2 miles and drops some 1800 feet at an average gradient of 8.1 percent. On the descent’s one significant straight (which was used for the speed trap in the Red Bull event), it is possible to clock 60 mph just before a sharp left turn will cause you to rethink your actions or alter your future. I know plenty of riders afraid to descend this road and it’s one of a handful of roads I descend where I’m unwilling to let the bike run. The looming wall of dirt has whispered things to me about deceleration trauma that I’m unable to repeat.
Decker Canyon Road is a bit like Tuna Canyon light. It is almost a half mile longer, drops 150 fewer feet, culminating in a 6.8 percent average gradient, as compared to Tuna Canyon’s deceptive 8.1 percent average. It also features nearly roughly ten fewer turns, meaning the road bends don’t come quite so frequently.
Decker Canyon is my road of choice for challenging myself on a descent or when testing the limits of a bike’s cornering. The descent is fairly steep, but not super-steep, the turns come in rapid succession and nerves of steel are tested in the turns, not in the chutzpah of straight-line speed.
I came up with a crucible. I’d take both bikes up to Malibu. I would ascend Encinal Canyon Road six times—three times on the Tarmac and three times on the Roubaix—and following each five mile, 6.3 percent average gradient ascent of Encinal Canyon I would plummet down Decker Canyon.
My first two ascents of Encinal were aboard the Tarmac. The second two were aboard the Roubaix. Trip number five was back on the Tarmac and the final trip was made aboard the Roubaix. The six circuits only added up to 57 miles, but the climbing totaled more than 9000 feet ascended.
My position was very similar on both bikes; saddle height and setback was the same and reach to the bar was within a centimeter, though the bar on the Roubaix was almost a centimeter higher. Switching between the two was unremarkable from a position standpoint. However, as soon as I did switch from the Tarmac to the Roubaix the increased vibration damping was immediately apparent.
According to my GPS data my fourth and fifth ascents (Roubaix and Tarmac, respectively) were my two fastest; my average speeds were within a tenth of a mile per hour of each other. Interestingly, I burned fewer calories on the Roubaix, lending further credence to the idea that cutting vibration can decrease fatigue.
My three fastest descents were aboard the Tarmac. On those descents (first, second and fifth) my max speed was 46, 46 and 46.5 mph, respectively. My slowest descent, surprisingly, was my first trip down on the Roubaix.
The tightest turns on the descent, the ones on which there was no question of braking, just how hard would be necessary, were all right-handers except for the final switchback less than a mile from the bottom. I was able to carve very consistent lines through these turns and found myself consistently shaving the yellow lines on the Roubaix and six inches to the right on the Tarmac. That minute difference made a big difference at speed.
What I noticed was that the more I felt like I was really having to manage the bike—push it—to negotiate a turn, the more inclined I was to brake before the next turn. I did almost no braking during turns on the Tarmac but did scrub speed with some regularity during turns while aboard the Roubaix.
A brief word on my descending: Fast. I like it. Roller coasters were always my favorite at amusement parks when I was a kid but today, compared to mountain roads, they lack a critical interactivity component. That said, I don’t take what I believe to be are risks. While I find the foregone conclusion of a roller coaster lacking, I enter every turn with the belief that my safe exit from it is deal-done. As soon as I feel like I’m really pushing a bike, I back off. My empiricism ends at the point of wondering just how fast I can enter a turn and exit it without a yard sale. Aided by downhill pads and a Kevlar suit I might play my hand differently and bluff my way straight to call, but in Lycra I do little more than ante up.
What I learned was I preferred the Tarmac for descending. I’m unafraid to declare my surprise at this. I really thought that the Roubaix would see me brake less and roll up to higher speeds, but it just didn’t happen that way and I can say that I did my best to make each of those drops an E-ticket ride.
But how many people buy a bike for how it descends?
In my estimation, more bikes ought to be purchased that way. I think it indicates a great deal about a bike’s character. A downhill turn is the ultimate litmus paper for any bike. If the bike won’t turn, you should ask yourself what that bike is meant to do and what you plan to use it for.
But here’s the asterisk: My preference for the Tarmac was revealed under fairly extreme circumstances. Most riders won’t ever ride down a road as challenging as Decker. There just aren’t that many of them in the world and unless such a road is part of one’s regular vocabulary of roads, the reasonable response is to back off. So what about the downhills more regularly encountered? What if, say, you rode in the Rockies or the Alps?
If I factor Malibu out of the equation and consider the other roads I took the bikes over, the many other roads I’ve ridden around the world, the answer is easy.
The Roubaix is easily one of the best all-around bikes I’ve ever ridden. I’ll venture to say it is one of the best thought-out bikes on the market. For most riders under most circumstances the Roubaix is an easy correct answer. It’s lighter than elfin armor, handles with the relaxed control of a Bond villain and cuts vibration like a power outage.
The Roubaix should be the default answer for anyone considering a Specialized road bike (or perhaps many other road bikes).
So where does that leave the Tarmac? It is, without marginalizing it, a bike for the margins. The Tarmac is the Navy SEAL to the Roubaix’s sailor, the surgical scalpel to the butcher knife, the truing stand to the Y Allen wrench. It is the accept-no-substitute for criterium racing, intestinal descents and the most aggressive group rides.
They are both spectacular bikes and well-enough differentiated to have earned their place in the Specialized product line.
After doing some group rides in which I knew the roads well, I ventured out to do some of the longer rides that take in some climbing and descending. I started with gentler roads with sweeping turns. The bike had a complete and utter lack of the nervousness I feared would characterize this bike’s handling above 30 mph. It was stable at 40 mph and turned in easily.
Next, I took it north to Malibu’s challenging canyon roads. If ever there was a place where a bike will demonstrate a weakness in how it handles in turns, Malibu is it. Turns come in rapid succession and very few of the roads can be descended safely without touching your brakes. Toss in a little off-camber action here and there plus the odd decreasing-radius turn and you have a veritable buffet of cornering challenges.
It was in Malibu that the Tarmac surprised me. What I expected isn’t what I’ve encountered with so many crit bikes: You get them above 40 mph and the front end starts to get loose. I’ve never understood the phenomenon, especially considering on paper it shouldn’t be happening. However, just what that phenomenon is will be addressed in a different post devoted just to trail.
Here’s the important part: At speeds above 40 mph the Tarmac was rock solid. What’s more, it remained easy to turn in. I have experienced the opposite of some crit bikes, bikes that were so rock solid in a straight line they resisted turning in—at all. The experience was a little like trying to drive a Greyhound bus through a parking garage at 50 mph. Showing Kim Jong Il the value of civil liberties would be both easier—and safer.
By the time I reached the bottom of Tuna Canyon Road the first time I descended it on the Tarmac, all of my assumptions about the Tarmac’s handling had been tossed aside like an unfinished energy bar. I concluded that the Tarmac was the heir to the handling I’ve always believed to be part of Specialized’s brand identity. I have yet to ride a touring bike that handled half as well as my Expedition and if you want to know how elegantly a lightweight cross country bike can handle, just climb on a Stumpjumper. The Tarmac redefined what I think a sport bike can be expected to deliver.
One aspect of the Tarmac’s handling that really can’t be overly emphasized is its stiffness. There are stiffer bikes out there, but I think the Tarmac offers spectacular stiffness for those of us who don’t generate 1000 watts (let alone more) in a sprint. Steering is particularly crisp with this bike, in part due to the tapered steerer which uses a 1.5-inch bearing at the bottom race and a standard 1.125-inch bearing at the top. This also increases stiffness in torsion by allowing the engineers to design a larger diameter down tube to mate to the rather enormous head tube.
My one and only quibble with this bike is its road sensitivity. The Tarmac SL is meant to be different from the Roubaix in two ways: comfort and handling. While the handling is sufficiently differentiated, I do have an issue (a small one) with one component of the Tarmac SL’s comfort. It doesn’t seem to me that the Tarmac SL should damp as much vibration it does. My basis for comparison in this regard are some other bikes in this price range that offer more road feel; they are few, but they are there. Getting this particular balance right is a colossal challenge, though; I think the SL2 delivers great road feel but is too stiff. The SL gets the stiffness right, but would benefit from a touch more sensitivity. My limited time on the SL3 says they got the whole package right.
With the introduction of the new Amira model—the women’s version of the Tarmac, which is built with women’s proportions in mind—Specialized can lay claim to producing the Tarmac in more sizes than any other bike company offers for a production road bike—11. The Tarmac is produced in six sizes, while the Amira is offered in five. And despite the crazy assertion by Giant CFO Bonnie Tu that no other company is designing bikes for women, Specialized’s commitment to women is arguably deeper than any other bike company going, with four road models and five off-road models.
Like the Roubaix Pro, the Tarmac Pro is equipped with a Dura-Ace drivtrain save for the S-Works carbon fiber crank. Unlike the Roubaix, the Tarmac’s S-Works crank is equipped with 53t and 39t chainrings. Ultegra brakes do the stopping.
The Tarmac Pro rolls on Fulcrum Racing 1 wheels. The wheels are fairly light, boasting a claimed weight of 1485g for the pair, but what most surprised me is that in more than 2000 miles of riding at this writing, they are as true as the words from a Boy Scouts lips. It is reasonable, in my opinion to conclude that Fulcrum’s 2:1 ratio of drive spokes to non-drive spokes does substantially aid the wheel by equalizing spoke tension. This is even more impressive when you consider that the front wheel has but 16 spokes and the rear has 21. I’ve had whisky that wasn’t this stiff.
The tires deserve some mention as well. The 700×23 S-Works Mondos feature a Kevlar bead and Flak Jacket protection combined with a 127 tpi casing. This tire ought to be unremarkable, and surprisingly, it corners like an architect’s T-square and I have yet to get a single flat. That’s as unlikely as a zero-calorie beer that tastes like a fine IPA.
Changes from 2009 to 2010 for the Tarmac SL include swapping the S-Works crank for a Dura-Ace one, subbing the Dura-Ace front derailleur for an Ultegra model and swapping the Fulcrums for Ksyrium Elites. My test bike weighed in at 15.5 lbs. before pedals and cages.
I’ll admit that I was infatuated enough by the Roubaix and wary enough of the Tarmac’s geometry that I really didn’t think I’d enjoy it much or put that many miles on it. Of all the bikes I’ve reviewed over the years, this may be the biggest surprise I’ve ever experienced. I love this bike.
Specialized Tarmac Pro: 94 points
Still to come: The Roubaix and Tarmac, head-to-head